What Will Happen to Harold?

He lives in one of the worst sections of Philadelphia. His father is in prison. He’s washed out of two schools. He has ADHD. He’s been caught stealing. He gets into fights. Child advocates say this is a crucial time to turn his life around, before it’s too late. He’s 11 years old.

In her first year at Hope, in 2006, principal Jennifer Donohue had kids who so desperately wanted attention that they literally banged their heads against the wall. Classrooms couldn’t stay silent for even a minute. It’s hard, if not impossible, to blame the children for being noisy. They were merely repeating behavior they’d learned in public school. But after a while, the small class sizes at Hope, and Donohue’s less-­controlling teaching and disciplinary methods, take effect. All the kids here go through exercises designed to maintain a civil classroom, and today, veteran Hope students can go for hours without misbehaving.
 
For Harold, Hope is a godsend. When his impulsivity leads him into some fine mess, Donohue conducts an oral autopsy with him, as she does with all Hope’s kids when they act out. On one occasion, in the gymnasium during lunch recess, the aides turned away from the kids for just a few seconds. When they turned back around, Harold had climbed into a rolling cart of basketballs, from which he couldn’t escape.
 
“I bet that looked like fun,” Donohue said to him.
 
“Yes,” Harold said.  
 
Donohue worked at First Philadelphia during Harold’s first few years as a student there, so he has a lot of trust in her. “Did you think about whether or not you should climb into the cart?” she asked.
 
“No,” Harold replied.  
 
“Did you think about whether or not you’d be able to get back out?”
 
“No.”
 
This inability to think through his actions beforehand, and his capacity to feel the weight of his mistakes after the fact — he appeared deeply depressed, reports Donohue, over the basketball cart episode — is why the staff at Hope clearly feels real affection for Harold, and also why they send him to the principal’s office not just for discipline, but also to sustain good behavior. As the school year winds to an end, Harold is even able to sit still — for the most part — through the standardized tests. And of course he finishes the math questions before everyone else, earning himself a happy trip to Donohue’s office.
 
Seeing him arrive without his slack-jawed I-messed-up expression, Donohue dispatches an assistant to walk him to the gym, where his hyperactivity fuels him in repeated laps around the school’s indoor basketball court. His footsteps echoing on the hardwood, Harold Mayfield Jr. grins broadly, his high cheekbones — fit for a career in modeling — arcing ever higher as he charges through three laps, four, five, until his steps are labored, his breathing wracked. Slowing, finally, he shuffles contentedly back to class — having won some time to run, his smile never fading.
 

AT HOPE PARTNERSHIP, summer breaks are short, interrupted by a four-week session that brings together the school’s returning kids and the new crop. Harold’s class, now the sixth grade, includes two new boys, one of whom stops by Harold’s desk during a recess, hours into their first day together, and says, “You gonna cry?”

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  • Katie

    This article absolutely broke my heart-but I loved it. Are you planning to check in on Harold in the near future? Pieces like this make me want to get involved in the Philadelphia community…

    THANK YOU!